Amid cheers from her third-grade class, Macedonia Elementary School teacher Sandy Giudice was surprised Thursday morning by Cherokee County Schools Superintendent Dr. Frank Petruzielo bearing flowers and the news that Giudice had been selected as the county-wide Teacher of the Year.
"I'm thrilled," Giudice during an interview after her swarmed her to give hugs and congratulations. "I'm very surprised. This is amazing. I'm really honored. Who would have thought?"
Giudice, a former journalist and public relations professional, began her full-time teaching career 11 years ago at Woodstock Elementary School after working there as a substitute teacher.
"I got called a lot, and I just so enjoyed it," Giudice said. "There are so many phenomenal teachers over ther who just took me under their wing. I loved it, and i guess it showed that I loved it."
It showed so much that her principal asked her if she'd be interested in a full time job. She received a provisional certificate, which enabled her to teach for the three years it took her to complete the requirements for her teaching certificate.
Things have changed in the last 11 years. When Giudice started teaching, she had 18 students in her class; now, that number has increased to 26. But, what she said hasn't changed is her goal to give individualized attention to her students.
"No matter how many kids are in the classroom, I still work one-on-one with students," she said. "They need that whether there are 18 or 26 students."
Class sizes, which have been increased over the last few years as a way to combat a budget shortfall, is one education issue that Giudice is passionate about.
"You tend to forget the impact of putting one, two or three more kids in a classroom," Petruzielo said. "She has a section (in her application) that will blow you away. I think her comments on the subject are very powerful."
In her Georgia Teacher of the Year application, Giudice wrote that it's not parents, teachers or the community but students who are short-changed by increased class sizes.
"I'm all for ensuring a quality education, but it seems rather obvious that bigger isn't better," Giudice wrote. "If you want the quality of education to improve, you simply cannot put as many students into a classroom as will fit. Just because you 'can' doesn't mean you should or that it is wise to do."
Giudice said she disagrees with the argument that reducing class size would lead to a teacher shortage.
"There is no shortage of highly-trained and qualified teachers in the state of Georgia," Giudice wrote. "As a matter of fact, education graduates in the last three to five years find themselves without a job after graduation. Why? Class sizes have increased so much that there is no longer a need for as many teachers. Veteran teachers are finding themselves out of a job or being transferred to a different school because of 'downsizing'. The problem here is that when you 'downsize' the teacher population and 'upsize' classes, you put at risk the very idea that you have fighting to protect: quality education for children."
Giudice's passion shows through to others, including her principal, Tammy Castleberry, who said Giudice's strongest attribute is teaching from her heart.
"It didn't take me very long to see a passion that you don't see very often," Castleberry said.
In fact, Giudice offered to give up her gifted class to work with the schools' struggling students.
"I gave her her gift students and the lower-level students," Castleberry said. "She has the brightest of the bright and the special needs students, and she does it beautifully meeting every need."
Students' needs go past academics. Giudice has discreetly helped students who have had bathroom accidents in class and purchased clothing items for children in need, and one year, she spent a semester teaching a student how to tie her shoes.
"By the end of the year, she was tying everyone's shoes," Giudice said. "These are the things they remember. Things like that you can't evaluate. Those are the big sucesses. You can't capture that on a piece of paper."
Another way Giudice meets her students' needs is by using songs and jingles to help them understand concepts. And, it's not uncommon for her to see some children mouthing the words to the now-familiar songs during end of year tests.
"Not all kids can remember (concepts)," Giudice said. "Some kids are auditory learner and they need to hear something."
And, that's one thing that Giudice's students say differentiate her from other teachers.
"She sings, and I haven't had a teacher who sings as wel as she does, and I haven't had a teacher as funny as her," Sydney Sharrock said. "She has a good sense of humor."
Added Chandler Pridemore, "She's very calm and fun. I like singing and she likes singing, and I just think she's a very nice teacher."
Other students mentioned how nice their teacher is.
"She's always there for us when we need her and when we need help," Braeden Garriques said.
Kate McConnell added, "She's never said anything negative about anyone in the classroom. I think that's good for a teacher, and I've never had a teacher so hilarious."
Giudice will compete against teachers from across the state for the 2014 Georgia Teacher of the Year. The winner will go on to compete in the national contest.